A Burns Night Celebration of Science

We're celebrating a great Scottish holiday - with science! Haggis, history, ceilidhs and more...
28 January 2020


A set of bagpipes held near a kilt.


This week we’re donning our kilts and raising our whisky bottles to celebrate Burns Night! The two-century-old Scottish holiday honours the memory of the great poet Robbie Burns, and in this episode we’re hosting our very own Burns Supper - but with a special twist of science. We've got haggis, history, and a live science ceilidh! Plus in the news, an update on China’s virus outbreak, the Earth’s oldest meteor crater, and scientists recreate the voice of a 3000-year-old Egyptian Mummy....

In this episode


00:58 - China coronavirus: how fast is it spreading?

What's the latest from the Wuhan City virus? Naked Scientist Chris Smith explains...

China coronavirus: how fast is it spreading?
Chris Smith, University of Cambridge

News on the emerging viral infection in China is coming in fast. The disease was first picked up by the Chinese in early December, and the source appears to be a food market in Wuhan City; the virus itself is a newly-identified member of a viral family called coronaviruses. Being a virologist himself, Chris Smith gave Phil Sansom an update on its spread...

Chris - Well what we've now learned, Phil, is a bit more about what this agent is. We know it's a member of the family of viruses known as coronaviruses. These do infect humans naturally, but they also infect lots of other animals too and they fall into three subfamilies, alpha, beta and gamma. This virus is in the beta coronavirus group of viruses. And why that matters is that there's a close relative of this virus called SARS which, some listeners will remember, was what emerged from China under extremely similar circumstances in 2002 to 2003 and spread around the world. It infected about 8,000 people. It caused about 800 deaths in more than 50 countries. This new virus is about 90% similar to SARS when we've read the genetic code for it. And because of the connection to this food market, we know that there was a probably under the counter trade going on in illegal and other wildlife species in that market. So what scientists are suggesting is that probably a consignment of animals, most likely bats, were brought to that market, those bats have infected either humans directly, or an intermediate animal, and that intermediate animal has become very infectious and then pass the infection onto people. And what we're now seeing is onward transmission because we've got evidence that this virus is spreading from people who caught it into other people who've had contact with those people.

Phil - Those were some pretty scary figures obviously that you just mentioned for SARS, 800 deaths out of 8,000 cases. Is this new virus, from what we can tell so far, as dangerous and will it spread as widely do you think?

Chris - Overall, the number of people dying is not as high as it was for SARS, which was about 10%. It seems to be about 5%. Also, the people who are succumbing to this, many of them are vulnerable already. They are elderly or they have other health problems. But it is early days and that could change because the other thing about these viruses is they can mutate. They're finding a home now in a new host, and that is us. And there's every reason to be suspicious that as they learn to live in their new home, they're going to change genetically. And that will rewrite the rules of the ballgame.

Phil - And do you know how many people roughly have been infected so far?

Chris - We're very reliant on data from China. Now you take that with a pinch of salt because we know that when SARS happened in China, China knew about that for many months before they told the rest of the world. And that's probably part of the reason why SARS managed to gain such a toehold and spread so far before it was clamped down on. They have been more open and they have been more transparent with this outbreak. But at the same time, you always have to be cautious about just swallowing the figures that are passed to us. We know now they're talking about thousands of cases that they have confirmed in China, but when one looks at the news of what's happening in China, you see lockdown of entire areas of the country and them saying, "We're now going to build a new hospital with a thousand beds in it and we're going to do it in two weeks." Now that's a major undertaking and that suggests that they're very concerned.

Phil - Obviously some of the people listening to our show will fit into those categories that you mentioned earlier, people more at risk, maybe people who are older. How worried should they be even if they live nowhere near China?

Chris - Well, I think one should never be complacent with an emerging infection because this is something which has never circulated in the human race before. No one is immune to this and it is a moving target. It could mutate, it could change and so one has to be very cautious about saying it's going to be terrible, but one shouldn't be complacent and say it's probably going to be fine. What we can say is a) we know about it, b) we know that we can make vaccines against agents like this, because there's an experimental vaccine that appears to work against the Middle Eastern coronavirus, so I think given that we're watching for it and we are quite well prepared I would say, I would reassure people, but at the same time don't take it for granted.

Phil - We've also had a question in from a listener for you, Chris. Jim Hungerford sent us this.

Jim - Hi Chris. I was wondering about R0 for the new coronavirus. How can that be measured as a single number, When I would have thought it'd vary dramatically depending on the particular situation, like if people are crowded together or if they're particularly susceptible because of the weather? Many thanks.

Phil - What's he talking about there? What's an R0?

Chris - R0 stands for the reproduction number. In other words, when a person is in the community and they're infected with something, how many new cases of that infection will they cause as a direct consequence of having the infection? If the R0 number is greater than one, that means the outbreak is going to increase because for every case there's going to be more cases than you started with. On the other hand, if the R0 number is less than one, the infection is going to dwindle and it will just fizzle out.

Phil - So if every infected person infects two other people then R0 equals two?

Chris - Correct.

Phil - So do you know anything about what it is for this Wuhan coronavirus?

Chris - We don't. And the reason we don't know is because it's early days. The data are patchy and they're going to be based on certain geographies in China. And the point that Jim is making in his question is, surely there's going to be different parts of the world with different populations and the virus will behave differently. Or when we talk about making these R0 values, we're talking about an average. So we would see how this thing performs, and as we gain more understanding, we would compute a more accurate R0 value. For measles for example, you're into double figures. That's one of the most infectious viruses we know. SARS, it was down at single figures, maybe between 1 and 5. It was very low. Flu is about 5 on a bad year. And so therefore, we're looking at a number which is probably going to be down in those low numbers I would say, based on the trajectory this thing appears to be taking. But it is early days and that's just my speculation.

Phil - Finally, have you got a quick take home message for someone who has seen a lot of news about this virus and isn't quite sure what to make of it?

Chris - First of all I wouldn't panic, and secondly, I also wouldn't waste your money on a face mask, unless you're going to go and buy one of these proper fit tested PPE masks, which forms a proper seal around your nose and mouth and you're going to wear eye protection. And the reason eye protection matters is because your tear ducts drain into your nose. So any viruses that land on your eyes, if they can't infect your eyes, they can still drain into your nose and infect you via that route. So don't waste money on one of these dopey face masks. Go and buy a pint of lager and sit in the pub. It'll cost you probably less. It'll protect you from the virus equivalently well, and you'll also enjoy it more.

The head of an Egyptian sarcophagus.

08:26 - Scientists recreate a mummy's voice

Nesyamun was a priest in ancient Egypt - and now he can speak and sing again...

Scientists recreate a mummy's voice
David Howard, Royal Holloway

Scientists have managed to recreate the lost voice of a 3000-year-old mummy, Nesyamun - a high ranking priest in ancient Egypt. Using an MRI scanner, they imaged the structure of his throat and recreated it with a 3D printer. And by using a speaker to simulate the vibrations that would come from moving vocal cords, Nesyamun can speak and sing again - ish. Adam Murphy heard from Royal Holloway, University of London’s David Howard how you go from mummy to maestro…

David - You’ve got to get him to a hospital. And that’s clearly done out of hours, for fairly obvious reasons. He then has to be lifted out of the sarcophagus onto the MRI table, to be taken into the machine. The nice thing is of course, he doesn’t move. For Nesyamun the pictures are very clean indeed because of course he’s not breathing, so nothing is moving. You then take a scan of the area from below the larynx in the neck to the upper end of the nasal cavity so that we’ve got all the vocal apparatus. And then you, in the computer, identify the airway in that, which comes out in contrast to soft tissue and bone. We then extract that from the airway in software, and you can then put a sheath round it in the virtual world, so a virtual sheath goes round it that’s 2mm thick. And finally you extract the sheath itself and send it to the 3D printer, which then produces the outline of the actual vocal tract that’s in his head and neck. That is placed on the loudspeaker with a special little coupler we’ve got designed that fits over the top, and we then put the sound in and listen to the result.

Adam - And how close is the recreation to how Nesyamun would have actually sounded?

David - We believe acoustically the sound that you’re hearing is exactly the sound that he would make if he were suddenly to become alive again and just make his vocal folds vibrate. And we’ve done work on that in the past looking at living people, including myself, where we make scans and we compare them acoustically with the original speaker. So we are confident that what we’re hearing is how he would sound if he spoke exactly as he is in his sarcophagus; bearing in mind that his tongue has lost its main muscular bulk, so that area of his tract is not as it would have been when he was alive and speaking.

Adam - Amazing. And is there any way potentially to get speech out of this, to get a three-thousand-year-old voice talking?

David - We’ve been thinking about this. At the moment you can’t do that with a plastic vocal tract because you can’t move it around, it's solid. But if we were able to calculate the sound coming out of the lips in the computer, for a larynx input, and we were also able to move elements of the vocal tract in the computer while it’s calculating it, then you’d have the basis of doing what is known as articulatory synthesis. And elements of that can be done. So I think it is plausible to think that we could make him articulate sounds. The first step for that would be to reinstate the missing part of his tongue, so that that tongue muscular bulk is there to allow sounds to be made, different vowel sounds and so on.

Adam - And then just lastly: what do you think of his voice? You have some musical experience behind you, do you think he’s got a chance on the Voice?

David - Yeah, I think he probably has. I mean, he’s got the right acoustic characteristics as is shown in the paper, so he certainly has that side of it. But what we do know is that he did lead the worship and he did indeed sing. And he did this regularly, because he was a priest to Rameses the Eleventh, so that was part of his day job. And my Egyptian colleagues tell me that the actual material he sang is documented: how it was pronounced, and also in terms of the music to which he sang. One of my big interests here would be to try and recreate some elements of his sung output.

Illustration of asteroids travelling towards Earth

13:57 - World's oldest asteroid crater revealed

The Yarrabubba crater, in Australia, has turned out to be 2.3 billion years old...

World's oldest asteroid crater revealed
Thomas Davison, Imperial College London

We’re going way back in time - to what’s just been confirmed as the oldest asteroid crater on Earth. It’s called the Yarrabubba crater, in the centre of Western Australia, it was created when something large smashed into the planet over two and a quarter billion years ago. By looking at rocks that came from the impact - called shocked crystals - a team of Australian geologists figured out when it happened. And because that date corresponds with some big changes in the Earth’s climate, the next step was to build a computer simulation to see what might have happened. Thomas Davison at Imperial College London created that simulation - and he told the whole story to Phil Sansom...

Thomas - We went to a crater in Western Australia called the Yarrabubba crater, collected some samples, and dated those samples; and found that the age of the crater is older than the previously known oldest crater. So this crater is 2.229 billion years old.

Phil - What was it that hit the earth 2.2 billion years ago that made this crater?

Thomas - Good question. So we don't know exactly what it was. Either an asteroid or a comet, the most likely scenario would be an asteroid hitting Earth. If it was an asteroid, we've run some models of this and found that the most likely scenario would be a seven kilometre asteroid hitting at around 17 kilometres a second.

Phil - Wow.

Thomas - My colleague Timmons Erickson, he went out and collected some samples from within the crater, picked up some bags of rocks and brought them back to the lab; and then they sorted these samples, they used some special techniques to pull out some very small grains that are called zircons and monazites. Now these grains that they were analysing were about the width of a human hair.

Phil - And those are things that can only come from something like an asteroid or a meteor?

Thomas - The features seen in those grains - they have shock features in them, and these are only found in impact events; so when an asteroid has hit the earth at many kilometres per second, formed a shockwave which has squeezed the rocks under really high pressures and temperatures, and changed the crystal structure of the minerals.

Phil - And how do you tell how old those are?

Thomas - So they looked at these two minerals, monazite and zircon, and they looked at the amounts of lead and uranium in those grains. Now uranium naturally decays to lead over time at a known rate. So we know that if you look at the ratio between the uranium and the lead, we can say how old a sample is. When you have an impact that squeezes the rocks under these really high pressures, that removes the lead from these grains, and you reset that clock.

Phil - Oh, it's like the asteroid took all the sand out the bottom of the hourglass - all the lead...

Thomas - Exactly.

Phil - And now the uranium's turning into lead again, you can see how much it's changed to.

Thomas - That's exactly right, yeah.

Phil - What did the world look like back then?

Thomas - So we think that when the asteroid struck the earth and formed the Yarrabubba crater, we think the earth was under a global ice age condition. So this is sometimes called the Snowball Earth scenario. We think there would have been maybe a couple of kilometres of ice, possibly globally. So I then ran some computer simulations using some shock physics models to find out what would happen if an asteroid of this size hit the earth with an ice sheet on top.

Phil - What does that look like to the area and the ice around it?

Thomas - So the ice itself immediately under the asteroid is going to vaporise almost immediately. The ice is then pushed up high into the atmosphere in this... what we call a vapour plume, going up into the upper atmosphere. And then that would then spread out through the atmosphere once it's up there.

Phil - And then what does that do to the atmosphere?

Thomas - Well, water vapour is a greenhouse gas. So if we can get enough of this up into the upper atmosphere, this could then start forcing the climate change, warming up the atmosphere and causing the ice age to thaw.

Phil - And did it cause a big climate change?

Thomas - Well, there was a big climate change at the time of the impact. Now normally we can attribute global trying to change to perhaps some volcanic activity; that wasn't the case at the time that the Yarrabubba impact happened. So we then think that maybe this could be the driving force behind that climate change.

Phil - And how big of a change was that?

Thomas - Before the impact event there was this - perhaps global - glaciation. After the impact, in the rock record, those glacial deposits are not present for up to 400 million years after the impact. So whatever thawed out the earth, it had lasting effects and lasting changes on the climate.

Aerial view of Earth from space

18:25 - HFC-23: potent greenhouse gas emissions rise

China and India said they had cut emissions of potent greenhouse gas HFC-23 - but levels seem to be rising...

HFC-23: potent greenhouse gas emissions rise
Matt Rigby, University of Bristol

HFC-23 is a gas produced as a byproduct while manufacturing refrigerants. It’s also an extremely potent greenhouse gas, thousands of times more powerful than carbon dioxide. Leading manufacturers have been under pressure to reduce their HFC emissions, which they claim they’ve done - but bizarrely, atmospheric scientists are seeing a quite different picture. Megan McGregor spoke to the University of Bristol’s Matt Rigby...

Matt - We saw reports from China and from India, which showed that they had completely cut down emissions of a very potent greenhouse gas called HFC-23. This gas has been growing fairly consistently in the atmosphere for a few decades now and about one tonne of emissions of this gas is equivalent to somewhere between 12 and 15,000 tonnes of emissions of carbon dioxide. So what we wanted to do is we wanted to then take a look at the data and see if that cut had actually played out in the atmospheric record. But unfortunately, what we seem to be finding is quite the opposite has happened. That actually instead of emissions reducing, they've grown and they're now are higher than they've ever been.

Megan - You wanted to keep an eye on the level of HFCs. How did you go about measuring their concentration in the atmosphere?

Matt - We use very sophisticated techniques, essentially they're methods to try and separate the air into its various component parts. And the concentrations of these HFCs are really challenging to measure. They're down at the levels of parts per trillion. So we have to use extremely sensitive instruments and we have to use techniques that essentially try and get rid of the bulk gases in the atmosphere. So things like nitrogen and oxygen. Sowe find ways of essentially removing those from our air samples and just leaving us with the more concentrated samples of the gases that we're interested in. And what we do is that we measure the concentration of a whole range of gases, at various points on the Earth's surface. For example, we have a measurement station on the West coast of Ireland and we have measurement stations in Barbados and Samoa. They tend to be in relatively clean environments where we can look at the change in concentration in the background atmosphere.

Megan - Is there any way using your measurement technique that you could figure out what's going on with, for example, more targeted measurements?

Matt - Yes. So that's going to be the next step. We have a measurement station in Korea which was not used in this paper. This station, instead of being far away from emission sources in the background atmosphere, is actually quite close to some potential emission hotspots. So, for example, it sees air arriving from the East coast of China. And so in the past we've used measurements from that station to be able to identify emission sources from China and the Korean peninsula. So hopefully we'll be able to verify whether it is China that is still continuing to emit large quantities of HFC-23.

Megan - So what would you say to someone in the UK who is trying to reduce their carbon emissions - they're cycling everywhere, they don't eat any meat - while this kind of thing is going on in the background, given that it's such a potent gas?

Matt - It's still important for all of us to think about how we live and how we can live more sustainably. But at the same time, yeah, we do need to keep up the pressure on the chemical industry because they do have a disproportionate impact on the climate and on the ozone layer. So hopefully, you know, with the two together, with enforcement action on chemical manufacturers, and action by billions of individuals, then we'll move towards a more sustainable economy.

A bumblebee on a flower

22:06 - Bees prefer nectar they can vomit up faster

The speed at which bees vomit doesn't sound important - but it affects which plants farmers should breed...

Bees prefer nectar they can vomit up faster
Hamish Symington, University of Cambridge

The speed at which bees vomit is not a subject that’s been much discussed in scientific literature. But a new study from the University of Cambridge suggests that it affects the kind of nectar bees prefer - and therefore the kinds of plants farmers should be breeding. Hamish Symington explained to Chris Smith and Phil Sansom what they've done...

Hamish - I am a plant scientist at the University of Cambridge and we're looking at what it is that bees like about flowers, trying to make flowers more efficient at being pollinated. And if we're doing that, we need to know what the rewards are like, the nectar and pollen, when they actually get to the flower. And we don't want them to spend too long on the flower because then they won't get round enough quickly enough. But we don't want them to spend too short a time on the flower, then they don't get that energetic reward that they need.

Chris - So how did you do these studies?

Hamish - So we have a flight arena within our bumblebee lab, which is a box, about 1 metre by about 30 centimetres high. We have a little colony of bumblebees which we bought. They arrive in a small buzzing box in the post and scare the receptionist. We let one bee out at a time, we have a look at how much she drinks and then we can have a look inside the bumblebee colony. We've fitted it with a perspex lid and we can watch the bumblebee as she goes back into the nest. Now when she's taken this nectar into the nest, she will vomit it back up for her nest mates to drink, because not all of the bees in the nest will go out and forage.

Chris - So obviously the easier it is for a bee to find a flower, find a drink, draw up the drink, get back to the nest and then deposit that nectar reward, that's going to make that bee favour those flowers. And those bees are going to do better.

Hamish - Yeah, it's the trade off between it being really easy, which if it's water, that would be the easiest of them all, but they're not going to get any energy back to the nest there because they're not bringing home any sugar. They need to balance how easy it is to drink, how far they need to fly and how easy it is to spit it back up again when they get back to the nest and it's that last thing which nobody had ever looked at before.

Chris - The stronger the solution, the thicker it is, isn't it? You just have to compare golden syrup with say some water that you put a spoonful of sugar in and one's very watery, one's very, very sugary but it's really, really sticky and hard to draw up.

Hamish - Exactly. And it's not a linear relationship. It's actually exponential. There's very little difference between water which has 35% sugar and water that has 50% sugar in it, but when you get up to about 65 it starts getting treacly. That's about maple syrup territory there.

Chris - I'm intrigued because are those honey jars in front of you? How appropriate!

Hamish - I brought some fake nectar along which I made in my kitchen at home earlier today. I believe Phil has volunteered to be the Guinea bee.

Phil - Tell me what I'm doing because you're handing me these two jars which have identical looking what could be water, but it's obviously a lot thicker than water.

Hamish - So I've made two concentrations of fake nectar here. One has 35% sugar in and one has 65% sugar in and the 35% one looks quite watery and the 65% one is quite thick. So what I'm going to do, drinking for a bumblebee takes a couple of minutes. I'm not going to get you to lap it up. That would look rather weird and would not make good radio.

Phil - I appreciate that.

Hamish - So if you just take a mouthful of it, then when the bees are sick, they have to spit it back up through their oesophagus. I'm not going to make you do that as well because again, being sick on air would not be good, but I want you to spit it out through the straw into a cup which I've got here.

Phil - Okay. I do have a sweet tooth, but let's see if this pushes it to the limit. I'll do it now.

Hamish - Okay, so he's taking a drink and then he's going to spit it out through the straw and that went quite quickly.

Chris - So you emptied the whole mouth full in a second or so. It was very quick.

Hamish - So here we now have the 65% solution. This is more like maple syrup territory. So it's going to be quite a lot sweeter. And then I want you to try and spit that out again.

Phil - And by the way, the straw that you've given me is not a normal drinking straw. It's one of the extra thin ones you get in very nice cocktails.

Hamish - I stole it from my daughter's drink.

Phil - Very nice. Okay, here we go. I'll now drink a sip of a thicker one and spit this one out too.

Chris - Oh my goodness.

Hamish - He's got one drop out so far.

Chris - You're turning very red Phil, it's proving difficult.

Chris - Is it fair to say that was very hard to spit?

Phil - I couldn't even do it!

Hamish - Yeah, there we go. So bumblebees have to do that as well. So there is this trade off, this optimising of how they can get it.

Chris - Now, why are you doing these experiments? Why does this matter?

Hamish - There is going to be a large number more people on the earth in the coming decades, and insects around the world are generally in decline. We're going to need to make more food, but lots of our food relies on pollination. So if we can make plants more efficient at being pollinated, and better rewarding for the insects which visit them, then we'll be able to use those insects better to help produce food.

Chris - You're talking about actually tweaking nature so that plants make an ideal concentration of nectar to make this process more efficient?

Hamish - It's tweaking plant breeding and crops, not tweaking wild plants, but it's trying to inform our plant breeding and make us breed plants which are not only nutritious and good for us, but also beneficial for the insects.

A tired man covering a yawn with his hand.

26:46 - Mailbox: Why we rub our eyes when we're tired

The part of the show where we read your correspondence - and listener Gal has an eye-watering question...

Mailbox: Why we rub our eyes when we're tired
Chris Smith, The Naked Scienitsts

It's the part of the show where we open our mailbox and see what messages you’ve been sending our way! This week, listener Gal asks us: “Why does one rub one's eyes when one is tired?” Phil Sansom put the question to Chris Smith...

Phil - Gal, as far as I understand it, rubbing your eyes can stimulate the glands that make tears in there, which would help with dry, tired eyes. And apparently it might also help you to relax by slowing your heart rate. Chris, any insight? Am I right?

Chris - Yeah, when we get tired, basically you're fighting against your body clock which is instructing you to go to sleep. And when we go to sleep, our nervous system shuts off the supply of various secretions, including saliva, but also critically tears. Now when you rub your eyes, what you're doing is a) distributing the smaller amount of tears that you have over the eye more efficiently, and b) by stimulating the front of the eye, actually the eye responds to direct stimulation via a nervous reflex to produce more tears. And it's there because if you get dirt or muck in your eye, it triggers reflex eye watering to flush out the muck. So by rubbing your eye, you're basically fooling your eye into thinking you've got muck in it, so you increase and augment the tear flow and that helps to make your eyes feel a bit more comfortable when you're tired.

Phil - I was going to ask just about the opposite scenario because sometimes when I get into bed I find my eyes weirdly water quite a lot.

Chris - Well, it's possible because of your posture; when you're standing up, the area that the tears drain into is this thing called a punctum. And if you look on your lower eyelid, right where the lower eyelid meets your nose, you'll see a tiny black dot. And that's your plug hole for tears. And they drain down there into your nasolacrimal duct and then into your nose. When you lie flat, of course, it's harder for the tears to run across your eye and then down the drain. So I'm not so surprised because your tears are still being produced and you haven't fallen asleep yet and dialed down the tear production. So they have to go somewhere, and they're finding it harder to get down the hole, so they just run down your face.

Phil - That's fascinating. I had no idea. I didn't know that existed on my face.

Chris - Have a look in the mirror and you'll see this tiny black dot. And I've had people come and they say, "I've got this thing in my eye and I've been picking at it trying to get it out," and it's actually their tear duct.

Phil - Oh no!

Chris - Yeah. So don't pick at that.

A portrait of the Scots poet Robert Burns.

29:38 - What is Burns Night?

Where did this celebration come from?

What is Burns Night?
Robert Irvine, University of Edinburgh

The two century old Scottish holiday of Burns Night honours the memory of the great Scots poet Robbie Burns. And on the show we’re hosting our very own Burns Supper, with a special twist of science. But we need to know what we’re actually celebrating - where does this event come from, and what’s behind the various traditions? With Chris Smith and Phil Sansom is Robert Irvine, reader in Scottish Literature at the University of Edinburgh...

Robert - The first Burns Supper happened only a few years, maybe six or seven years, after Burns' death, and it was simply his friends gathering on the anniversary of what they thought was his birthday to toast his memory. Now these men were all Freemasons, and Burns was a Freemason. Freemasons like inventing rituals and making speeches and drinking, and I think that is the basic kind of recipe that then was developed and sophisticated over the decades into the Burns' Supper that we're used to today, which can be a very complex event.

Chris - What can you tell us about Robert Burns, the man?

Robert - Well, Burns was born into fairly humble circumstances. His father was a tenant farmer. Burns himself, when his father died, he took over responsibility for the family farm. The science angle here, if I can introduce that, is that this was at the height of the Scottish agricultural revolution. All sorts of new techniques, and methods, and livestock breeds, and crops, and crop rotation, and enclosure, and all those sorts of things were being introduced.

Now, the problem here for people like Burns and his father was that landlords charged rent on farms according to the productivity the farmers would be capable of once they were improved, but they expected the tenants to border the money and invest in those improvements themselves. This left lots of farmers permanently in debt, and in some ways we have the agricultural revolution to thank for Burns' career, because once he was in charge of the family farm, Burns thinks "God, I want to out of this." And his talent as a writer, as a poet, as a songwriter, is the thing that lets him get out of farming.

Chris - Most people say though that you go into the arts at your peril because they're notoriously poorly paid. Did he actually make money during his working lifetime as a poet or is it only in death that he became more famous?

Robert - What Burns was able to do was, once you became famous that gave you contacts in the upper classes, in the aristocracy, and then you used your contacts in the aristocracy to get yourself a job. And that's what Burns did. So he got himself a patron, aristocratic patrons who were able to get him a job in the excise service as a customs man. And that was the way in which he rescued himself from his economic insecurity.

Phil - And then the night itself and the Supper, to what extent is that an accurate reflection of him or his legacy?

Robert - I think it's quite an accurate reflection of his tastes. He was, you know, because this has kind of Masonic roots. It was originally an all male event and Burns loved all male society. He loved being a Mason and he loved drinking clubs. He loved the literary societies and reading clubs and so on. I think he would have loved Burns Suppers. But the actual having bagpipes to pipe in the haggis, the various exchanges of speeches and so on; these are all things that came long after Burns.

Chris - Speaking of which, would you mind doing us the honour? Kicking off our Burns' Supper here on the Naked Scientists with the famous Selkirk Grace.

Robert - I would love to:

Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it;
But we hae meat and we can eat,
And sae the Lord be thanket.

Phil - Thank you very much Robert.

Robert - I should perhaps just explain there, that meat in Scots just means food. So this is a vegetarian-friendly grace, not just for meat-eaters.

Chef Tristan Welch holding a haggis while Phil Sansom holds a microphone to his mouth

33:44 - Cooking up a haggis!

What goes into making the Scottish delicacy?

Cooking up a haggis!
Tristan Welch, Parker's Tavern

We’re about to bring out the main course: haggis. It’s Scotland’s national dish, but the squeamish among us probably prefer to eat haggis without thinking about how it’s made. But last week’s podcast was all about reducing food waste, and it's important to recognise how good a job haggis does here. Phil Sansom went to meet chef Tristan Welch to learn how to cook the delicacy - and for the uninitiated, there’s talk of blood and guts coming up…

Tristan - So we're going to make haggis. We've got all the ingredients laid out here. The key ingredient, these fabulous things: lambs lights or pluck. What do you think?

Phil - It's horrible! Oh, I hate it, I hate it.

Tristan - A pluck or a light, you big Jessie, is basically everything from the tongue of the lamb right the way down. So we've got our lungs, the liver, the kidney, the heart... some people use the windpipe, some people don't. I think it makes a bit of a dirty haggis rather than a clean haggis.

Phil - Why does a haggis use all of this?

Tristan - For me it's about using the whole animal. Everything's taken, cooked, and made completely delicious and stuffed inside a sheep's stomach. We're going to trim it down first and the bloodier bits, we will discard. I'll do it like so, I'll show you.

Phil - As Tristan went to work on the assorted lamb bits, I tried not to lose the lunch I'd had earlier.

Phil - I need to get a stronger stomach.

Tristan - Well we've got a sheep stomach. Is that strong enough for you?

Phil - I'd really rather it wasn't here.

Tristan - Here we are. This is our lungs, our liver, our hearts, our kidneys, they've all been diced up. We've taking some of the thicker tubes out, let's say. I've put in some bay leaves, some salt, and we're just going to cover it with water and simmer it for about an hour.

Phil - Are they very different to cook with than a normal slab of meat?

Tristan - Gosh, completely different. You have to be very, very delicate with it. But one of the... one of the funny things, the strange things about cooking a lung is it floats on water! So it's just difficult to cook.

Phil - What, do you have to push them down?

Tristan - Yeah, yeah. So we'll put some paper on top and then another pan, and that will just keep them submerged underwater.

Phil - As the lamb's pluck simmered, it went from bright red-coloured to a deeply unappealing grey.

Tristan - I've taken them out of the cooking liquid and I've chilled them down, and I've mixed it with some onions, which I've sweated down in suet. I've got some more suet fat, beef suet fat, and I'm going to put it all through the mincer. It looks pretty gruesome at this point, I have to admit, there's nothing particularly glamorous about making a haggis; but wait until the end product. Back in the 1800s didn't they believe that haggis was an animal that you'd catch? And it's got one leg shorter than the other one so it can run round hills.

Phil - That sounds like something you'd tell to a fool Englishman.

Tristan - You now, I used to live in Scotland and I was called a fool Englishman for many, many years.

Phil - Really?

Tristan - Yeah, yeah! Let's mince away then...

Phil - I can only apologise here, because the sound of haggis mix going through a mincer might be the most unpleasant sound I've ever recorded.

Tristan - And there we are. So you add a generous amount of oats to it, it's almost 50:50. A good pinch of salt. So now we add our spices, which is nutmeg, coriander, allspice, black pepper - that's the really important one. But people always have their own spice mix and they keep it a very closely guarded secret. And to this lovely mix we're just going to add a little bit of our cooking stock, which I've had reducing down there on the stove.

Phil - With the mix ready, Tristan got out the container for the haggis: a cleaned, pale white, cord-textured lamb's stomach.

Tristan - We're stuffing away here. I've taken a nice tennis ball size of the haggis. I've popped it into our lamb stomach, and now I'm gently tying around so it forms a little parcel. Trim the string... and there we are. That's our haggis and it's ready to be poached for about an hour.

Phil - Are you looking forward to eating it?

Tristan - Yeah, it's going to be delicious!

Music festival

38:28 - Fred MacAulay & the largest ever Burns Night

Comedian Fred MacAulay has just broken a world record - and he joins us to deliver the Address to a Haggis...

Fred MacAulay & the largest ever Burns Night
Fred MacAulay

Comedian Fred MacAulay has just recently broken a Burns Night world record! Fred joined Phil Sansom and Chris Smith in the studio to tell us how he did it - and deliver the Address to a Haggis...

Fred - I was part of an attempt on Friday evening to set the world record for the biggest Burns Supper ever. And it was verified by the Guinness World Records people, so it will be in the next volume! 926 of us.

Chris - Goodness! Who made all the haggises?

Fred - I can't honestly tell you who the company were that were behind the scenes making it all, but a round of applause I think for the chefs that managed to do that, for 900 plus.

Chris - Have you ever done this before? Is this a sort of climax to something you've been building up to for a long time?

Fred - It was a company up here celebrating 160 years of existence, and they decided to mark it by doing this. And I just happened to be the guy that was hosting it so my name is going to be attached to it. Unverified though, in 2011, Chris, when we were climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in January, my late friend, the chef Andrew Fairlie, myself, and a number of other people had what we think might have been the highest ever Burns Supper - at nearly 17,000 feet.

Chris - Oh you mean in altitude rather than chemically assisted?

Fred - Yes. Ha ha, you know me!

Phil - And this recent one Fred, as the host, did you also give the famous Address to the Haggis?

Fred - No, we had a Burns specialist to do that, but the night before at another Burns Supper, I did the address to the haggis. And yesterday at a friend's lunch, there were about 20 of us for lunch and I addressed it again then.

Chris - So how much haggis have you had in the last three days? Have you beaten me? ‘Cause I'm on my second.

Fred - Can I just commend you Chris for having it with roast beef? Because I'm all for trying it with different foodstuffs and a favourite up here now, that I've heard some people enjoying, is pretty much the same. They have a little bit of haggis, neeps and tatties, but they have minced beef as the main part of the meat produce.

Chris - I'm so relieved Fred because I was terrified I had trespassed on tradition.

Fred - No, no, no. And did you dribble a wee bit of whisky over the haggis?

Chris - No, but should I have done?

Fred - Yeah, I would say maybe 50:50.

Chris - Really? 50%, as in I eat equivalent volume for volume? Whisky with haggis?

Fred - No, 50% of people that will eat haggis might drizzle a bit of whisky over the haggis!

Chris - Oh okay! I thought you meant I had to have 50% of what I ate…

Fred - “Two kilograms of whisky please!”

Chris - Well look, are you going to do us the honour of addressing our haggis that we've got? I've got it on a plate here in the studio.

Fred - Would you like me to?

Chris - I would love you to. Would you?

Fred - Alright, I’ll give it a go. Here we go...

Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o the puddin'-race!
Aboon them a' ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye worthy o' a grace
As lang's my arm.
The groaning trencher there ye fill,
Your hurdies like a distant hill,
Your pin wad help to mend a mill
In time o need,
While thro your pores the dews distil
Like amber bead.
His knife see rustic Labour dight,
An cut you up wi ready slight,
Trenching your gushing entrails bright,
Like onie ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sight,
Warm-reekin, rich!
Then, horn for horn, they stretch an strive:
Deil tak the hindmost, on they drive,
Till a' their weel-swall'd kytes belyve
Are bent like drums;
The auld Guidman, maist like to rive,
'Bethankit' hums.
Is there that owre his French ragout,
Or olio that wad staw a sow,
Or fricassee wad mak her spew
Wi perfect scunner,
Looks down wi sneering, scornfu view
On sic a dinner?
Poor devil! see him owre his trash,
As feckless as a wither'd rash,
His spindle shank a guid whip-lash,
His nieve a nit;
Thro bloody flood or field to dash,
O how unfit!
But mark the Rustic, haggis-fed,
The trembling earth resounds his tread,
Clap in his walie nieve a blade,
He'll make it whissle;
An legs an arms, an heads will sned,
Like taps o thrissle.
Ye Pow'rs, wha mak mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill o fare,
Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware
That jaups in luggies:
But, if ye wish her gratefu prayer,
Gie her a Haggis.

Phil - Wow. Fred, was that from memory?

Fred - Well pretty much. I'll be honest, I've got it here just in case, but having done it over the last few days... and I did wonder, there might be a few words in there that need a bit of translation. When he's describing the haggis he describes it, the "hurdies like a distant hill". Well "hurdies" is a Scottish word for buttocks.

Chris - Oh! And how does that creep in? But, you know, one other thing, because I was doing a bit of research before the programme and I came upon a story that you had a friend in Germany, and you did a Burns night in Germany. Is this true?

Fred - It's a story that was passed on to me about a late Burns specialist, and I told this on QI a number of years ago. As you've just heard, the language that Burns used, old Scots, there are a lot of words that are similar, a few that are very different. And this Burns Supper in Germany, they decided to take Burns' poem and they translated it into German. And then they had an afterthought that many of the people attending would actually be English. So they translated it back out of German and into English. And the second line of the address to the haggis, "Great chieftain o the puddin'-race!" was delivered that evening as "Mighty fuhrer of the sausage people!"

Chris - [laughs] How did that go down?

Fred - Well it gave me a laugh, it made Stephen Fry laugh, and it made it an awful lot of people watching laugh as well.

Glasses clinking together for a toast.

44:16 - Toasts to the lassies and laddies!

A toast to the lassies and a response to the laddies, celebrating the great figures of Scottish science...

Toasts to the lassies and laddies!
Lewis Thompson, University of Cambridge; Jenny Gracie, University of Strathclyde

Traditionally at a Burns Supper, a male guest gives a special toast ‘to the lassies’ - thanking and praising the women around the table. Lewis Thompson is from the University of Cambridge, and a former Naked Scientist intern, so here’s his toast to the historical ‘lassies’ of Scottish science...

Lewis - Since the Scottish Science Hall of Fame features ten great male scientists, it seems that the lassies of Scottish Science are not oft discussed. But in the words of Robbie Burns himself:

Amid this mighty fuss just let me mention,
The Rights of Woman merit some attention

In the tradition of taking matters into their own hands, how have the lassies of Scottish Science done in maintaining Burns’s three “Rights of Women”, which he claimed were protection, decorum, and admiration?

Protection was the realm of Victoria Drummond, the first woman member of the Institute of Marine Engineers. Serving on the cargo ship Bonita during the Second World War, she improved the speed of the ship’s engines while under fire from the Nazis  to allow the ship to dodge the bombs.

Next on Burns’ list, decorum. As all scientists know, good scientific decorum is the correct classification of your observations so that others can easily understand your work. Williamina Fleming knew the importance of this, helping to create the Pickering-Fleming system for the classification of the thousands of stars whose light emission patterns she examined. And, she discovered the Horsehead Nebula in 1888!

Finally, Mary Somerville - the first woman to feature of Royal Bank of Scotland banks notes, apart from the Queen - has certainly had her fair share of admiration. Her writings on astronomy in the 19th century ultimately led to the discovery of Neptune, and her obituary in 1872 proclaimed “there could be no question whatever as to the queen of science”.

So, thinking of Victoria Drummond, Williamina Fleming and Marry Somerville, I invite all the gentlemen listening to please stand, and raise your test tubes in a toast “to the lassies”!

And now let’s go over to our female guest Jenny Gracie - a physical chemist at the University of Strathclyde, and another former Naked Scientists intern - who has the traditional response ‘to the laddies’...

Jenny - Thank you Lewis - and Scottish men are no slouches either. They have produced some of the most famous inventions in the world, where we have John Logie Baird and Alexander Graham Bell to thank for our TVs and phones. Perhaps it’s something in Scotland’s beautiful landscapes that ignite the ideas? Rabbie Burns himself once wrote,

Gie me ae spark o’ nature’s fire
That’s a’ the learning I desire

Alexander Fleming was inspired by nature and found that a certain type of mould had bacteria-fighting properties. This observation led to the discovery of penicillin, which has saved countless lives around the world.

Another Scotsman, John Napier made our mathematical lives easier by inventing logarithms to handle complex calculations that otherwise could take more than a day to solve! He invented an early version of a calculator, and popularised the decimal point.

Then there’s James Watt, a Scottish engineer who made ground-breaking improvements to the steam engine design - changes that helped power the industrial revolution. He developed the concept of ‘horsepower’ and also has a unit of power, the Watt, named after him.

To squeeze in one more bonnie Scotsman, we’ll mention James Clerk Maxwell. His connection between electricity, magnetism and light paved the way for today’s technology, and he figured out what makes up Saturn’s rings. He also demonstrated the first colour photograph. The item he photographed? Well it was a tartan ribbon of course!

Many people aspire to reach Rabbie’s great legacy, and the male scientists mentioned above have certainly made their mark on the world. With this thought, I invite all the ladies listening to please stand, and raise your conical flasks in a toast “to the laddies”!

A fiddle being bowed.

48:30 - Science Ceilidh LIVE: Canadian Brain Dance

It's time for a traditional dance - but this ceilidh is about neurons and brain signals...

Science Ceilidh LIVE: Canadian Brain Dance
Lewis Hou, Science Ceilidh

Now that the drinks have been drunk and the toasts have been toasted, it's time for a traditional Scottish dance, or ‘ceilidh’. Lewis Hou runs an organisation called the Science Ceilidh that adapts these traditional dances to demonstrate science concepts - like the way chemicals move around a cell in a body, or how planets orbit the sun. He prepared something special for Phil Sansom and Chris Smith...

Lewis - It is a strange combination. But if you have been to a Scottish ceilidh dance, you'd know it is not about the dancing ability. It's about that spirit of feeling welcome and I guess as an educator, I was really interested in how do we bring that spirit into science and to culture as well. So you don't need to be an expert to feel you can join in. So I was working in neuroscience and had a ceilidh band at the time, and just wondered could we use, the patterns and the structure of ceilidh dances to actually convey scientific concepts, and then as a way of building connections with diverse communities as well. So linking curriculum, different parts of research to researchers with lots of different people across Scotland.

Phil - Well, I've been to a ceilidh myself and I can also attest to the fact that they're very welcome to people who are completely uncoordinated. But what kind of concepts can you turn from science into a dance?

Lewis - We found a bit of everything. I mean traditional dance is all about stories and actually science is all about stories as well. So we've probably got about, at least 40 science themed dances. It can range from biomedical sciences. So our infamous Orcadian Strip, the helix, for DNA replication, got mathematics of symmetries. We've got chemistry, we've got climate change, sustainability. We've even managed to do something on linear and circular economies. And we've even got a wee bit of physics as well. So we've collaborated with astronomers and looking at the Merry Dancers, for example, Na Fir Chlis in Gaelic, which links the story of the Aurora, the mythology around it with the science of actually how it happens.

Phil - And what's the most complicated dance slash most complicated scientific concept, that you've actually tackled?

Lewis - That's a great question. Och. One of my personal favourites as a neuroscientist has to be the action potential, which also from a dance point of view is quite exciting because it's not just using Scottish dances, but it's using dances from across the world. So we've got a few country dances from America.

Phil - Am I right that that's what I'm going to attempt now today, and you're going to give for our listeners?

Lewis - Absolutely. So tonight we're going to try probably the world's first Ceilidh via radio. We're going to do the Canadian Brain Dance.

Phil - Canadian Brain Dance?

Lewis - It's based on a quite traditional Canadian Barn Dance. Normally it's a partner dance, but I've adapted it so you can even try in the comfort of your own homes if you'd like.

Chris - Well look, Phil's volunteered Lewis. He has got headphones on a cable. So don't send him in too many pirouettes or he's going to get very tangled up. But can you talk us through the moves for both Phil and anyone at home who - and don't do this while you're driving everybody - but for Phil to have a go at.

Lewis - Health warning! So if you imagine yourself now as part of a neuron. So the Canadian Brain Dance is all about how neurons send messages both electrically and chemically. So you're going to be standing up with plenty of space in front of you, hopefully. And imagining you're now about 10-15 microns in the neuron of the brain.

Chris - Okay, Phil is doing his impression of a neuron right now.

Lewis - Very good. Okay. So first off Phil, you're going to go forward, two, three, and then you can hop on the spot. And then you're going to do that again, so you're going to go forward, two, three and hop. So at this point you are representing the electrical signal firing in a neuron. And because the neuron is covered in these fatty coats called the myelin, it allows the electrical signal to actually literally almost hop, meaning it transfers across the neuron much faster.

Chris - Well he's doing it. So you've got him going forward, two, three, hop, forward, two, three, hop. So he's an action potential going down an axon. Now what does he do next?

Lewis - You are then going to twirl. Twirl forward two, three and clap, and then you're gonna go back to your original place.

Chris - It wasn't very a loud clap Phil. You've got to do better than that. That's better. Yeah. Getting into the spirit of the thing.

Lewis - At this point you're at the end of the neuron, and you're releasing the chemical signal into the space in between the neurons, the synaptic cleft. And most people might know these chemicals as neurotransmitters being released.

Chris - So what does he have to do? Is that when he claps? That's the neurotransmitter squirting out? Are you ready Phil, do you want to give it a go?

Phil - I'm ready. Okay. I can give it a go.

Chris - Are you happy

Lewis - Oh Hold on! We've still got a few more moves.

Chris - Quickly then.

Lewis - You'll shuffle forward, forward, and back, and back. So you've got the binding of the neurotransmitter to the receptor. And then finally, if there's enough excitation - and it is a ceilidh after all - then you're going to polka and skip, I'll run through the moves again the first time through the music.

Chris - Alright then. Well let's roll it and let's see how you get on. Are you ready, Phil.

Phil - I'm ready.

Chris - Are you ready Lewis? Let's roll the music.

Lewis - Okay, you're going to go forward two, three, and hop. Forward, two, three, and hop. You'll twirl forwards, two, three, and clap. And back to your place. Forward, and bind. Back, bind. And then you're going to polka, or skip, forwards, two, three, and off you go. And again, electrical signal goes forward. You're going to hop, forward, two, three, hop. Release of the neurotransmitter into the synaptic cleft. You're binding to the right receptor. And hopefully if there's enough excitation, the next neuron will start firing. Polka, polka, polka to finish, and cycle again. There you go.

Chris - Well you've certainly impressed everyone this end Lewis. And Phil's worked up a sweat. Did you enjoy that?

Phil - I actually did. I don't think I did very well, but I think I had fun. And I felt like an action potential.

Lewis - That's good!

Chris - There you go. That's a once in a lifetime experience.

You can find out more about the Canadian Brain Dance here.

A picture of the Earth from the ISS space station

54:36 - QotW: What happens if Earth's polarity flips?

What happens if the Earth's magnetic field ever reverses its polarity? Geologist John Underhill explains...

QotW: What happens if Earth's polarity flips?

We got this Earth-shattering question from listener Ray. Megan McGregor sought out the answer, with help from geologist John Underhill...

Megan - The Earth’s magnetic field is generated by the swirling motion of liquid iron metal in our planet’s core. This magnetic field is approximately the same shape as the field around a bar magnet, with one north and one south pole - a so-called dipole field. I talked to Richard Harrison, Head of the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Cambridge, to find out how long the field might take to flip.

Richard - Every 200 to 300 thousand years on average, the polarity of the Earth’s field flips round, so what was the magnetic north pole becomes the magnetic south pole, and vice versa. The last reversal was 780,000 years ago, so yes, you could say we are ‘overdue’ for a reversal. However, reversals occurs randomly and at irregular intervals, so it is impossible to predict exactly when the next one will occur, and although some aspects of  the field can vary quite quickly (on the order of 10s to 100s of years) a full reversal takes a few thousand years to complete, so even if were to begin tomorrow it would not flip in our lifetime.

Megan - It’s a classic disaster movie plot: the earth’s magnetic field reverses suddenly, and all hell breaks loose. Richard suggests reality might not be quite so apocalyptic.

Richard - To understand what a reversal might look like it crucial to realise that the magnetic field is not a perfect dipole. For example, in the South Atlantic Anomaly - a region of unusually low magnetic field strength in the South Atlantic – the field deviates significantly from that of the expected dipole field.

Megan -  During a reversal the regular dipole part of Earth’s magnetic field would be zero, leaving only these strange anomalies behind. We could end up with more than just two magnetic poles, spread around the world.

Richard - In this multipolar state, the magnetic field is significantly weaker and more complex, leaving us more exposed to the influx of cosmic rays and solar irradiation. The effects of this would be similar to those currently experienced inside South Atlantic Anomaly: satellites suffer increased interference as they pass through that region, and astronauts have reported their laptops crashing. On Earth we could see massive disruption to power and satellite communication networks, as well as increased exposure to cosmic rays, which experiments have shown could lead to cognitive dysfunction. Having said that, the field has flipped many many times during Earth’s past, with little evidence that it has had a major impact on life - we’d probably survive but our mobile phone reception may not…

Megan - Thank you Richard. Next week’s burning question comes from Robin.

Robin - I heard in the podcast that the reason why we get a sunburn is that the body is trying to fix cells that are damaged by UV radiation. So if one person is sunburned longer than another, does that mean their immune system is worse?


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